“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? – Luke 12:49-56, NRSV
I’m going to violate a longstanding preacher’s rule this morning – I’m going to tell a story on my own family, in particular, a story on my own kids. But since they’ll never know I told it, I suppose I’ll be able to get away with it this time.
My younger daughter just returned to college in Switzerland yesterday, after having been back stateside for the past two weeks, and I was able to travel up to Columbus to spend a little time with her and her older sister on Friday, and to see her off at the airport. A weird thing – certainly not a unique thing but still a weird thing – happens between her and her older sister when she comes back. In the week or so before the younger one comes home, she’s always homesick, and really ready to come back to family and friends and familiar surroundings, and the two girls are always glad to see each other. But the truth is, the beauty of this Hallmark Moment between the two of them only lasts about a day, maybe two at best. After that, their very different personalities and ways of seeing things, and the fact that they’re living under the same roof in relatively tight quarters, getting under each other’s feet, starts to get at both of them. The friction builds and builds. Then, always just two or three days before the younger one leaves again, their tempers overflow and they explode into a huge argument. The younger one is homesick again, but this time for her *other* home, and her friends there, and the excitement and new experiences awaiting when classes start up again, and yes, having more room to herself, away from her sister. So she really wants to go. But at the same time, she doesn’t. She’s already starting to feel the loss of leaving *this* home again, and recognizing that she’s going to miss Mom, and maybe even Dad, and even her sister, as annoying as we can all be at times. So she wants to get away, but then she feels guilty about wanting to, and the anxiety builds and builds, until boom, here comes World War III between the two girls. “Ohh, you people are crazy!!!” “Well, you’re no prize yourself!” “I swear, I’m going back to Switzerland and I’m *never* coming back here!” “Yeah, well who asked you to?” And on and on, arguing and fighting in that special way that I think only brothers and sisters can. This happens over and over again, like they’re following a script. But then, the two girls y ultimately make some kind of peace. And on the day the younger one leaves the two of them are standing there in the airport, saying goodbye. Sometimes, there are a few tears, and some hugs, and even smile or two; and they’re both already feeling the twinges of missing each other even before the jet exhaust has even dissipated from the runway. And the whole cycle starts again.
Families are weird.
Jesus talks about families, and especially, family divisions, in today’s gospel text. As Jesus-sayings go, this isn’t a particularly feel-good quote of his. And it even seems a little bit out of place, since, if you read through the entire gospel according to Luke, you’ll see that Luke goes to great lengths to portray Jesus as the bearer of God’s peace and reconciliation into the world – even at his birth, the angels sing God’s praises and declare Jesus the Prince of Peace. But in this section of the gospel, Jesus talks in several settings more about the lack of peace, and the divisions that will arise as a result of trying to live out lives as his disciples and people of the Kingdom of God.
The really weird and tragic thing here is that many times in the past, and even today some people have heard these words as Jesus actually *encouraging* this kind of division and dissention and argument on the part of his followers. Some people seem to interpret this as Jesus saying that their creating these divisions supposedly in his name, or God’s, is a sign that they’re being faithful followers of his. These words become a kind of a call to battle.
And so, ever since the days that Jesus called the first handful of disciples, we followers of his have disagreed and squabbled on things large and small. Families, whether literal families or church families, have fought and sometimes have seen the kind of division and separation that Jesus talks about in this passage.
All people disagree and squabble, and seemingly nowhere more ferociously than in church. We’ll fight tooth and nail, as if the fate of the entire universe hangs on what color we pick for the new carpet in the sanctuary, or what kind of coffee is served during fellowship time, or, when we have Communion via intinction, whether you break the bread off for yourself or I break it off for you. And of course, we do the same when it comes to more serious issues; theological issues.
But notice something here. As you read this passage from Luke, notice that Jesus is merely pointing out that because of his entering into the world, and teaching the ways of the Kingdom of God, those kinds of divisions are going to happen. But he isn’t *encouraging* them; he’s pointing out that this is a *bad* thing. The reality is that we should do whatever we reasonably can to avoid these internal family squabbles and divisions. Because Jesus is indeed the Prince of Peace. And we are indeed called to find ways to live, and worship, and serve, and be in fellowship with one another, and to do so when we agree about things and when we don’t – *especially* when we don’t. As much as we can, we’re called to find unity, and ways to continue to hold each other in a spirit of brotherly and sisterly love for one another.
It’s especially in those times of division and disagreement that Christ calls us – *all* of us family members, wherever we find ourselves in the disagreement – to recognize the grace that God has extended to us, and to extend it outward to others in a spirit of love. We’re called to find a way to maybe shed a tear, offer a hug, and a smile or two, and recognize the beauty, the great gift that God has given us in naming us all brothers and sisters, even in all of our own particular, unique differences and weirdness.
The good news for us is that even though that can be very, very hard, we know that God has promised us that the Holy Spirit will work within us, challenging and inspiring us to this kind of family unity and healing, and actually empowering us to make that hard work achievable. And even in the times we try it and fail, even when we really mess it up, we know that we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try it again, because we know that our failures are already forgiven – We know that God has already reconciled with us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – that “baptism” with which Jesus says he’s about to be baptized in this passage.
In know that there will come a day when my two daughters will have to say a real goodbye. I don’t mean a totally *final* goodbye of life and death that awaits us all at some point, but I am talking about a substantial goodbye. They’ll be standing together in an airport, or next to a loaded car or a packed moving van, and they’ll know that this goodbye is something more serious. This time, they’ll never again live under the same roof. They’ll never again get underfoot the same way they have in the past. They might not ever live on the same continent again. Real, face-to-face time together will be much more rare. They’ll recognize that this goodbye is serious. And sad. And sobering. But I’m convinced that in that goodbye, in that moment the bonds of love that they have in their hearts for each other will actually deepen.
Sometimes, the church family finds itself in the midst of a similar kind of goodbye. Those goodbyes are just as serious, and sad, and sobering as the one my daughters will experience sometime in the not-too-distant future. But in either of these cases, I’m convinced that God will provide new and expanded opportunities for all the people involved. I’m convinced that in both of these cases, all of the people involved will go forward with the love of God, and not just the love of God, but also the love, and prayers, and warmest wishes, of their brothers and sisters.
Families are weird. And sometimes they’re messy. But despite all that, all really shall be well, because through all of it, each of us continues to dwell in the palm of God’s loving hand. And because of that, we can all say
Thanks be to God.